Washington — The Supreme Court isWednesday whether the lines of a congressional district in South Carolina are a racial gerrymander that violates the Constitution in a case that tests the intertwining of race and politics.
The justices will weigh a ruling from a three-judge district court panel in South Carolina that found state Republican lawmakers intentionally let race drive the design of Congressional District 1.
The dispute is the latest to come before the high court arising from the redistricting process that took place after the. But unlike a closely watched dispute involving , which the high court found likely violated the Voting Rights Act, the court battle involving the single district in South Carolina centers around claims that race was improperly used during the map-drawing process, in violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
“What makes this case interesting is it’s the first racial gerrymandering claim involving a heavily White district where the claim is that race was used to artificially suppress the Black population of a district,” Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at Harvard University, told CBS News. “In every one of these cases, it’s been a heavily minority district, and the claim is [that] race was used to inflate the minority population.”
He continued, “At its core, this case is a race or politics case because the court erroneously thinks partisan gerrymandering isn’t the problem for it to police, partisanship ends up being a successful defense to claims of racial gerrymandering. The question is which motive dominated, is it race or partisanship?”
Located along the state’s southeastern coast and anchored in Charleston County, the voters of Congressional District 1 have elected Republicans to the House from 1980 to 2016. But in 2018, Democrat Joe Cunningham won the seat in what was widely considered to be an upset win. The following congressional election, in 2020, brought a narrow victory by Republican Nancy Mace.
During the redistricting process that began in 2021, when state lawmakers redrew South Carolina’s congressional voting map, GOP officials sought to give Congressional District 1 a stronger Republican tilt. To do this, they moved 140,000 residents out of District 1 and into Congressional District 6, long represented by Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn.
The map was enacted in January 2022, and Mace won reelection that November. But the NAACP and other civil rights groups challenged the lines of Congressional District 1 as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, and alleged the district was designed with racially discriminatory intent. Following an eight-day trial, a three-judge panel of the U.S. district court in South Carolina agreed with the map’s challengers and found that race was the predominant factor in the drawing of the district.
The panel concluded that GOP lawmakers set a target of 17% Black voting-age population in Congressional District 1 and moved more than 30,000 Black residents from their home district into Congressional District 6 to produce a Republican tilt. The district court blocked the state from conducting an election with the GOP-drawn bounds for Congressional District 1, though it gave the legislature until 30 days after the Supreme Court issues a final decision to submit new lines.
South Carolina Republicans asked the Supreme Court in February to review the district court’s decision, arguing it failed to adhere to the presumption that the Legislature acted in good faith, and did not disentangle race from politics.
The GOP legislators argued that it drew Congressional District 1 to adhere to traditional districting principles and sought to create a more secure Republican district. The Supreme Court in 2019 said the doors of federal courts were closed to claims of, the practice of drawing voting lines to entrench the party in power.
“If left uncorrected, the panel’s holding would place States in an impossible bind by exposing them to potential racial gerrymandering liability whenever they decline to make majority-white, modestly majority-Republican districts majority-Democratic,” they told the Supreme Court in a filing. “And it would invite federal courts to micromanage political disputes in countless such districts across the country under the guise of superintending the finetuning of their racial composition.”
But the civil rights groups, which are encouraging the Supreme Court to let the panel’s decision stand, argued that using race as the predominant factor for sorting voters violates the Constitution, even if it’s done for partisan gain, and said state lawmakers failed to demonstrate “clear error” with the judges’ factual findings.
“Just as an employer is not exempt from discrimination claims in one department’s hiring because it does not discriminate in others, a legislature cannot sort thousands of voters by race in one county and evade review by following traditional principles in other parts of the State,” they told the justices in a filing.
The means for sorting voters, whether by race or politics, could be a key factor when the justices hear arguments, especially when it comes to states where voting is polarized, making it difficult to disentangle race from politics.
“When South Carolina designed this district with a lower Black population, did it do that because race predominated or because it was trying to draw a safe Republican district?” Stephanopoulos said, adding that the state will prevail if it can convince the Supreme Court it was engaging in partisan gerrymandering.
Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, likened the improper focus on race during redistricting to a driver who only watches the speedometer and ignores traffic patterns, road conditions and other vehicles.
“If you’re so fixated on the speedometer that you ignore everyone else and only stare at the speedometer, you’re going to crash,” he told CBS News. “The allegation proven to a trial court is essentially, South Carolina was only looking at the speedometer and crashed.”
Levitt said he believes it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will make it more difficult for voters to challenge the use of race as a driving factor in the crafting of district lines, but said the case is important because “when legislature have a single-minded focus, as was proven here, they do damage to the public interest.”
“The overall thrust is the court’s suspicion that state governments should be doing things based on race,” he said. “It’s not that they say districts have to be drawn race-blind, but the thrust of their opinions elsewhere is real skepticism of race driving the train. I don’t think they’ll back off of this type of claim. The risk is that as a practical matter, it’s difficult for plaintiffs to prove that a state legislature was in fact drawing districts in order to put minority constituents inside or outside of their district without good reason.”